‘Unclaimed’ No Longer: Volunteers Work to Provide Military Burials for Forgotten Veterans

Veterans who die alone, without connections to friends and family, have piled up on the shelves of county morgues and funeral homes for decades.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates about 21,000 veterans are awaiting burials, some dating back to the Civil War. A nonprofit group that works on behalf of these so-called unclaimed veterans believes that number falls short by tens of thousands.

Since 2007, the Missing in America Project has provided thousands of dignified burials.

Rich Gough, a volunteer in New Jersey, says there are “100 different reasons” why a veteran might linger on a shelf, unburied—the family may not have been able to afford a burial, for instance.

A lot of the nonprofit group’s work involves combing through lists of unclaimed remains at funeral homes and morgues, and then spending years trying to verify veteran status of those who they suspect might have served in the military. When a veteran is found, volunteers begin the search for family.

More coverage:The VA mistakenly buried him as an “unclaimed” veteran. Now his family is trying to bring him home.

“We give them the opportunity to either claim the veteran or give us permission to provide military honors,” says Don Gerspach, director of Missing in America Project.

Often, though, family is not found, and the full story of how veterans wind up in limbo for decades remains a mystery.

Below are the stories of five unclaimed veterans the Missing in America Project recently located. All will be honored with a ceremony on June 11 and eventually buried at BG William C. Doyle Veterans Cemetery in Wrightstown, New Jersey.

HARRY JAMES LYONS—US NAVY—WWII

Harry James Lyons was born in the seaside town of Rumson, New Jersey, on June 8, 1914. He enlisted in the Navy on Jan. 25, 1945, and by October of that year he was promoted to seaman first class while serving aboard a warship in the Marshall Islands. On Jan. 15, 1946, he was honorably discharged.

After the war, Lyons married twice and fathered four children. He worked as a machinist for 25 years and died of natural causes on March 3, 1991, at the age of 76.

Though Lyons left a family behind, he sat on a shelf at the funeral home for 32 years. Gough, with Missing in America Project, says he hasn’t pieced together why Lyons’ family didn’t bury him. But in the 30 years after his death, his wife and three of his children passed away. Missing in America Project volunteers could not find his remaining son, Harry Lyons, Jr., whose last known address was in Mississippi.

ROBERT W MILLER—US NAVY—VIETNAM

Robert Walter Miller was born in Brooklyn, New York, on Sept. 16, 1945, but spent most of his childhood in Belford, New Jersey. He enlisted in the Navy on Jan. 29, 1963, and served during the Vietnam War.

Upon his discharge, he married his hometown girlfriend, Margaret. Over the decades he worked as a heavy equipment operator, bought a home, and had a family. Miller died on March 5, 2013, at the age of 67.

Gough sent a certified letter to Miller’s son, explaining his cremated remains were unclaimed, but never got a response. Gough, who grew up near Miller in New Jersey, happened to know and live near Miller’s wife, and stopped at her house to drop off his business card. But she had recently moved.

Miller’s cremated remains were left on the shelf at the local funeral home until 2017. That’s when the Vietnam Veterans of America and Missing in America Project identified him as a veteran. Because of Miller’s common name, though, the National Cemetery Administration required his service number to determine whether he had earned burial benefits.

Looking for a lost veteran in your life? Tell us your story by emailing lostveterans@thewarhorse.org so we can investigate or connect you to volunteers who might be able to help.

Various newspaper articles tracked his Navy career as a fireman on the USS Simon Lake Sub Tender from 1964 in Charleston, South Carolina, to 1966 in Holy Loch, Scotland.

For seven years, Missing in America Project volunteers relentlessly investigated his military career.

Finally, through a Freedom of Information Act request, volunteers identified 1966 ship logs for the USS Simon Lake. A review of its quarterly roster revealed Robert W. Miller’s name and service number.

CHARLES BAME—US ARMY—WWI

Charles Bame was born in Philadelphia on Dec. 18, 1894. He joined the Army on Aug. 7,1918, in New York and was sent to the 311th Motor Transport Corps for a few months.

He was then reassigned to the Services of Supply 324th Repair Unit in support of the American Expeditionary Forces in France, England, Italy, and the Netherlands until his discharge on April 18, 1919.

He married and settled in New Jersey with his wife and daughter. Bame died on Dec. 16, 1973, of a colon obstruction at the age of 78.

His wife, Paula, died just a few months after on March 7, 1974. A half-century later, both Bame and his wife were found still unclaimed at a funeral home.

HENRY J. DANNA—US ARMY—WWI

Henry J. Danna was born in Angrogna, Italy, on May 14, 1893. He enlisted in the Army after arriving in the United States in about 1914.

Danna was assigned to the 152nd Depot Brigade for training until May 19, 1918. At that point he was transferred to Company K, 303rd Infantry until his discharge on Dec. 2, 1918.

Danna’s life then pivoted drastically. He trained as a pastry chef and worked at the famed Drake Hotel on Park Avenue in New York for many years, moving on to other New York-area restaurants over time. Gough says Danna was married twice, but they couldn’t find his first wife. His second wife passed away in 1995, and he believes Gough’s stepdaughter from his first marriage passed away in 2001.

After his retirement, Danna relocated to Asbury Park, New Jersey, passing away on May 30, 1984, of liver cancer.

Danna stayed on a shelf at a funeral home in Asbury Park for 39 years.

ARTHUR SINCLAIR VON ROHL—US ARMY—WWI

Arthur Sinclair Von Rohl was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, on Feb. 20, 1894. He entered the US Army on June 8, 1918.

By fall of 1918, Pvt. Von Rohl joined the 13th Company, 4th Battalion, 153rd Depot Brigade, Camp Dix, New Jersey.

He was reassigned to the 8th Infantry and was discharged on Nov. 23, 1918.

Von Rohl never married. He spent his adult life at the Sun Oil Company, retiring as a marketing representative. At the age of 81, he died of congestive heart failure on Aug. 19, 1975.

There was no next of kin on his death certificate, and no family came forward. His cremains were placed on the shelf of a funeral home and didn’t move for 48 years until the Missing in America Project located him.


This War Horse investigation was reported by Anne Marshall-Chalmers, edited by Mike Frankel, fact-checked by Jess Rohan and copy-edited by Mitchell Hansen-Dewar. Abbie Bennett wrote the headlines.

Anne Marshall-Chalmers

Anne Marshall-Chalmers is an investigative journalist at The War Horse where she covers the health of veterans, active-duty servicemembers, and military families. Her work has appeared in Mother Jones, Inside Climate News, Civil Eats, USA Today, NPR, and the Los Angeles Times.

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